Tim O'Hara shares the story of Rancho Mastatal, a sustainability education center in Mastatal, Costa Rica.
With the help of his wife and many others, Tim went from, as he puts it, "shitting in a bucket", to managing one of the most prominent natural building centers in Latin America.
How did he do it? A combination of intelligence, grit, and a "long view" on growing his business and his community.
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Recorded at Rancho Mastatal on May 8th, 2016
Transcribed by Spenser Gabin on May 14th, 2016
Includes: Tim O’Hara of Rancho Mastatal
Spenser Gabin: Hey guys, today on the podcast, I'm going to do an interview with Tim O’Hara, better known as "Timo", from Rancho Mastatal. Tim is the founder of Rancho Mastatal, a sustainability education center, in Mastatal, which is a rather remote and less known region of Costa Rica. Tim has been there for 15 years and has built a quite remarkable community and education center, he specifically focuses on helping the local economy, which we'll talk a little bit about. It's really just a great example of a successful education center, "permaculture" is thrown around a lot, but I think it's one that's particularly rooted in place.
So Tim, before we get into the nuts and bolts of what Rancho Mastatal is now, I just want to take a step back to 2001, and a little bit before then, to get a sense of what lead you to become interested in starting a place like this, what your background is, just to give us a picture of what things were at the beginning, and then we can get more into how things are now.
Tim O’Hara: I grew up in New York, in a kind of a post-industrial city named Binghamton, grew up in a typical suburban child, lived in a cul-de-sac, had access to the woods, it was a nice upbringing. I am the youngest of five children. After I graduated from high school I went to Cornell University, which is about 50 miles from my hometown, where I studied Agricultural Economics, graduated in 1991 with that degree, and after a little bit of post university traveling, I got my first real job out of school, with Chiquita, which is a large agribusiness.
I worked with them for two years as a marketing analyst, kind of had my first peak into the inside world of agribusiness and how our food systems work. I worked for the branch of Chiquita that imported mainly container loads of fruit from Chile, so that we can now have grapes and plums and peaches in February, in New York State.
Spenser: Who doesn't love that?
Tim: Indeed. After about a year there I started to become quite disheartened with what I was contributing to, I fortunately had a colleague at Chiquita who had recently returned from spending two years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. She slipped me a book one day at my desk, entitled "Bitter Fruit", which is a story about the overthrow of the democratically elected government, in Guatemala, in the early 1950's and specifically the overthrow of the Jacobo Arbenz Administration. In that book, it talked about the CIA and Chiquita's (the United Fruit Company at the time) role in that overthrow, that violent overthrow.
It really opened my eyes considerably, and really forced me to look inside and forced me to ask questions that were quite uncomfortable at the time, what I was contributing my time and resources and energy to, and the same colleague that slipped me that book, who became a close friend of mine, started to encourage me to look into the Peace Corps as a next step. She thought I would make a good volunteer and that the international experience would be good for me. I had not left the United States up until that point. I was 25 years old and I worked in the Bourse Building in downtown Philadelphia at that time. The regional Peace Corps office happened to be right across the street, not too far from the Liberty Bell, and so, I strolled over there one day at lunch and talked to a representative and was intrigued by what I heard, and a little inspired by what my colleague had told me and picked up an application on my way out, and filled it out over the course of a few days, and made the decision to go ahead and drop it into the mail. I can't remember how long it took, a few months later, in my mailbox was an acceptance packet. I had been accepted to the Peace Corps and targeted to go to South America to the country of Uruguay. That was a big change for me, a big deal, I started to prepare my belongings and uprooted my life in Philadelphia, which was quite a positive life, I had a great community of friends, I really enjoyed Philadelphia a lot more than I ever thought that I would.
But, I decided to up-and-go, and I remember the day from my office at Chiquita, called my father and told him that I had been accepted to the Peace Corps and would be going to South America and he asked me where I was at that moment, and I said, "Well, in my office." And he said, "Ok, I'm coming to get you right now." He was not very supportive. At the very beginning, it took a few weeks to have some open discussions with him so that he became more comfortable with this idea of me departing.
Spenser: What was your role at Chiquita?
Tim: Marketing analyst.
Spenser: So what would that involve?
Tim: I helped out with advertisements, promotional materials, but mainly I studied trends in the market, and produced reports for executives so that they could make decisions on how to move forward with marketing their products and setting prices.
Spenser: Was economics your focus at Cornell?
Spenser: So what were your father's objections to it? I imagine you're probably doing ok at Chiquita financially?
Tim: Yeah, I was on that path at Cornell that had prepared me. Cornell's agriculture school is quite conventional, probably more so then than now. They do have a sustainable "ag" program now that's quite small, but mainly the agriculture education there that one learns is tied to the current agricultural paradigm that most of us eat from, and it was not very progressive. As I look back, it was quite typical, it was very agribusiness oriented, very globalized, very export/import based, I was essentially trained to fill a position such as [my position at Chiquita] and move my way up the agribusiness.
But fortunately, I had some really good role models. This colleague that I mentioned, Denise, and one of the vice presidents there who had also spent time in Guatemala as a Peace Corps trainer, both of whom recognized that perhaps the corporate world was not a good fit for me, and I was fortunate that I had the wherewithal to share their honest opinions about where I had landed, and recognized that I could probably be doing better work somewhere else. So I went to the Peace Corps, spent three years in South America. In the Peace Corps library, I was introduced to Bill Mollison's “Permaculture Design Manual”.
Spenser: Ah ha!
Tim: It was the first time that I had heard that term before, and opened the book, and like so many people, ended up reading through the entire book fairly quickly, and it made perfect sense to me. I think a lot of people say that when they read Bill Mollison's book, it just makes a lot of sense on so many levels. It really resonated with me on many levels. I had been placed with a group of organic farmers, as my Peace Corps project, so I was fortunate enough to delve into that world, the opposite one that I landed in with Chiquita. I was working with small farmers, trying to help them identify new markets that would market their produce and work with them to incorporate fertility building techniques and strategies.
I took off in that world, I was fully engaged, enamored with that life, just being around people that actually were passionate about putting healthy food on the table. I lived on a farm for a year after completing my training, and fully jumped in and it changed me forever. Peace Corps experiences have a tendency to really impact people. They're not all good experiences for everyone, it's a very mixed bag.
Spenser: You got a good one?
Tim: This happened to be a good one for me. I met my wife in Uruguay as well, who is my partner in crime here, at the ranch, and we developed a strong relationship that continues today. I remember writing a handwritten letter to John Jeavons as a Peace Corps volunteer and reaching out to permaculturalists, in an effort to try and identify what my next step was going to be. I went to Nicaragua after Peace Corps and worked for Jerome Ostentowski's project there in Teotecacinte in Nicaragua for a while.
Prior to doing that, I applied for an ecological agriculture program at UC Santa Cruz. Got accepted, was on my travels working my way back to the states to see you. Started this program when my former boss at Chiquita got a hold of me, this is pre-email, via letter, and told me that she had moved out West to worked for another agribusiness company and that they were looking to open and develop a Latin American program and she strongly encouraged me to think about coming to work with her, she thought I was a good fit, I had become a fluent Spanish speaker since leaving Chiquita, and she wooed me to Vanguard Trading Services, which is a company that I worked at for a few years.
I had to make a very tough decision, I had been accepted into a competitive, ecological agriculture program at UC Santa Cruz, I got a good job offer from a company, I had family and economic pressure. I really, really wanted to do the ecological "ag" program. I remember sitting in my parents living room one night with my head down, asking anybody to give me the right answer to whether to go to Seattle or Santa Cruz and I woke up and decided to take the job. So instead of going to Santa Cruz, I turned down that offer and I moved to Seattle, where I began my new life there, working as a trader of large quantities of fruits and vegetables. All of my clients were based in Latin America, I traveled considerably in this region of the world, but again, quickly realized that that environment was the wrong one for me.
Spenser: And this is [after] having read Mollison's book. So, when you took that job offer, were you a little bit hesitant, I mean it sounds like you had a dilemma of course, but did you have a sense of what you'd be putting your efforts toward at that point?
Tim: I certainly did, I had a better sense than I did when I joined Chiquita right after college, but societal pressures got the best of me. You get a stipend in the Peace Corps, it's enough to allow you to make ends meet. You get some money upon leaving as well, for basically resettling back into life in the U.S., but I was without any income stream at the time. I had traveled after Peace Corps, I didn't have much money, my family expected to use my degree in a certain way that filled my life with a lot of pressure at that point. I had three older brothers and a sister, all professionals, successful, however you want to define that, in their fields of medicine, law, and finance, etc...I had some big shoes to step into and I really felt that pressure as so many people do these days, to take that paved road and to do, what you are "supposed to do".
But after a year at Vanguard, I realized that I was not destined to live [that life], I was miserable essentially. I was beating rush hour in the mornings because I had to be in so early, I was missing rush hour on the backside because I was getting out so late, and my work that I essentially hated--that's a strong word--that I disliked in a very serious way, and so I gutted it out for another year, I was there for a couple of years, gained a lot of good experience. As I look back now, these two corporate experiences that I had, the one at Chiquita and the one at Vanguard, really did help me get to where I am today, even though they are paths that I decided to get off of along the way for a lot of reasons that I am happy for now. I did gain a lot from those experiences.
Spenser: Like what?
Tim: Just understanding for one, how the real agricultural world works. I made a lot of contacts, my network greatly expanded, I had the resources through the companies to travel, I was speaking Spanish all of the time with my job at Vanguard. All of my clients were Spanish speakers, I met some great people, really developed a strong network of friends and a solid community in Seattle, which has served me well up until now, and those experiences, good or bad, like all experiences in life, do inform who you become in the future, and I became uber-sure that that corporate path was one that I would not follow any longer, even if it was a six-figure offer.
And I started to guide, doing outdoor adventure travel trips, and basically set out on an exploration to try and find something meaningful to do with my life. It lead me to guiding, it lead me to manage a canoe and kayak manufacturer, I was an avid whitewater kayaker in Seattle, and lead me on this path of exploration, which lead me to, in part, where I am today, and little by little, from the time I got out of high school until now, I have been exposed to people with more progressive views. Like I said, I grew up in a pretty conservative, post-industrial town, not super progressive. I went to Cornell where I was introduced to kind of a more progressive community of people, and started to hear the words organic farming, and composting, these terms that are now just an expected part of my life. Back then, they were very new and seemed innovative, and incredible and it's been, as I said, Peace Corps, another community with quite progressive thinkers, a different library, the permaculture book I mentioned earlier being there, and that really did open my doors to a whole other world that I hadn't been exposed to prior to my graduation from high school.
Spenser: As you mentioned, working in a corporate environment and choosing to do something else, isn't a totally common experience, but a lot of people are in that place. Was there a last straw? And to follow-up on that, some people might choose to just come to a place like [Rancho Mastatal] that already existed. You, instead, chose to create one. Why did you choose to do that and then also, why, specifically, Costa Rica, and then Mastatal, kind of get into your thought process on why those would be good options?
Tim: Post-Vanguard, my wife and I were starting to look for a different path. My wife was working at a swanky restaurant in Seattle, bringing home the bacon, which was great for us at the time. It allowed me to do some exploring and allowed us to research some different options out there. My wife, who also speaks fluent Spanish, based on her time at the Peace Corps, her and I were really open to returning to Latin America some day, as an option, through our kayaking and adventures, spent a lot of time in the Hood River region of Oregon. We really liked the feel down there. We loved our community of friends in Seattle. We developed a really strong network as I said earlier. But it got to the point where we didn't want to pay rent anymore, we were putting a lot of our money to paying rent, to buying food, and we gardened, we composted, we were doing what we could in that urban environment to be good denizens of our city and of the planet. But it didn't seem like enough to us, we couldn't afford to buy in Seattle. We started to look at what else could be out there.
We essentially had our site set on Oregon, along the Columbia River gorge, a bit more rural. We started to look for work there, when a friend of mine from the Peace Corps, who I had dreamt with back then about starting an organic, ecological farm type project somewhere in South America, called me up and said he had just been to Costa Rica, he had come to a town in Mastatal and he essentially stumbled on an advertisement for a farm that was being sold in the center of town. He told me that it really seemed like the place that he and I had talked about back as Peace Corps friends, that place we had dreamt about back then. He encouraged me and my wife to come down here. It was off the radar of what we were looking at at the time, even though we were interested, and open to returning to Latin America, we weren't thinking that at that time. We were Northwest-based, we saw ourselves being there for the foreseeable future, but he convinced us to jump on a plane, and we came out to the property that [Rancho Mastatal] currently sits on, spent a few days here. We really liked what we saw, it was rural, the property borders a conservation area, and the water resources are abundant and pure. The economy here at that time was very depressed, there wasn't much going on economically, which was intriguing to us, to think about coming and starting the project that could contribute to the revival of a local, rural economy. We walked down to the waterfall nearby here, and I think that was probably the moment that Robin and I looked at each other and were like--
Spenser: Music went on?
Tim: Exactly. We decided at that time to take a closer look at it. You asked about the breaking point before it. I don't quite remember if there was an exact point in my past when I was like, "hands up, this is it". It certainly did come during that time, when I was at Vanguard, and getting up in the morning, feeling miserable every day, [it] was no way to go through life, and [I] wasn't getting enough sleep. My weekends were cut short, but anyway, sorry to backtrack there for a sec. Moving forward, we went back to the States after our trip to Mastatal, we had only looked at this property, we were not actively looking for a property in Latin America, which is unique to this type of story. Sometimes a lot of people are down here looking, and looking for that perfect property. Our story is a little bit unique in that, the property kind of found us, it was the only one we looked at, and we went back and started to brainstorm about how we might be able to put together a business plan that would allow us to meet our financial obligations, while doing meaningful work that contributed in a positive way to an economy. We decided on this idea of a sustainability education center, we started to talk with our network of friends, we had a graphic designer friend who helped us build our website. It was the first website he had ever built, and little by little we started to put the pieces in place. Financially, we had limited resources in our bank account at that time. We were able to talk with the prior owner of this property and asked him if he would hold own half of the value in an owner-held mortgage, which he agreed to. We pooled our money at the time, we went into this project with another couple named Dan and Jen Alcorn. Dan was my friend in the Peace Corps that I had dreamt with back then, so the four of us went in on it together. They got out of the agreement, about a year or a year and a half in. They had a baby girl and it just didn't work out, the timing. Robin and I ended up buying out their shares early on in the deal.
But backtracking a little bit more, we started to put together this idea, the resources. Originally, we bought the property in 2000. We were originally going to come down in late 2000. We had spent all of our money on the down payment for this place, we took out some family and friend loans, and we felt that we really needed to have more of a cushion upon our arrival here, to be able to do something that would make ends meet.
Spenser: Why, both economically and philosophically, the education center, versus, you talked about starting an organic farm, that itself being a profitable endeavor maybe, you instead chose to focus it on education? I mean you grow some of your own organic food, but it's primarily an education center, so why that? Let's start with that, I want to get into those early days of getting it off the ground, but first lets start with why education, versus just trying to sell organic coffee or something.
Tim: Let's see. My wife and I, over the years, while on the Peace Corps and post-Peace Corps started to develop new passions, new ideas, we were exposed to new literature, a new community of friends, and we really started to become very interested in topics such as natural building and agroforestry, wilderness medicine, conservation, education in rural areas, etc...these were all interests of ours, we hadn't fully developed, hadn't fully lived. They were ideas in many cases. It was information that was very interesting to us, but, we didn't really have the background or the experience to say that we knew much about, or, didn't know enough to really apply that information in any real practical way.
Part of the selfish piece of this story is that, we wanted to be a part of developing a place where we could not only teach but also learn and exchange information with other people, experts in these areas, areas we wanted to become experts in, and so part of our decision was influenced by this idea or this dream of creating a space where people from everywhere, with these similar passions and interests and ethics could come together, and basically, be a clearing house for all of this information, which would hopefully lead to some kind of paradigm shift down the road. As far as starting an organic farm, we were interested in growing food at that time, we had no real experience outside of gardening, outside of my work in the Peace Corps, working with farmers to--
Spenser: Make that viable?
Tim: Yeah, think about a scenario that would allow us to make ends meet, financially. Especially in a climate that was new to us, in a rural area. We weren't interested in getting into the exportation of anything, it was something I was turned off to in my corporate days. We were more interested in self-sustenance and thinking about it more on a small-scale, as opposed to a large-scale. My wife has been a teacher in the past, she has an interesting history as well, as we studied the options that we had to make ends meet here, financially. It seemed like taking advantage of Costa Rica's history with eco-tourism, it just seemed like a way that we could develop a viable business that would allow us to connect to the "ag" piece and to these other pieces that I mentioned early, but in a way that would increase the likelihood of success and longevity moving forward.
We did not have our site set on Costa Rica, kind of as I said before, we were looking at Oregon. In fact, we were more, if we were to move to Latin America, attracted to the lower-income areas. It may be influenced by our Peace Corps days. We were a little bit more interested at the time of perhaps moving somewhere poorer, if you will, so that we could have an impact in a place that might, "need it more". But, fate led us here in the end. It was a good geographic location because of our close ties to family and friends in the Northeastern United States, where we were both born and raised, really ended up being a nice geographic location, due to the fact that we can get back to the States, relatively quickly, and relatively inexpensively to stay connected to our world there. Moving from Seattle to Costa Rica actually, distance-wise, got us a little bit closer to our family in the Northeast.
Spenser: What were those early days like? Did you have fears about whether it would work? Whether the local community would buy into it? Would people even want to come? Of course, Rancho Mastatal is successful now, it's working. I just heard you filled a permaculture course with 28 people, things are rolling now. But, going back to 2001, my sense of it is that there was less interest in [permaculture] at that point, the interest has grown over the years, so what were those years like? Was it stressful? Did you have second thoughts?
Maybe it went great, I don't know, I'm just interested in those first couple years.
Tim: Yeah, it was all of the above and more. Very tight times, making payroll at the very end of the week, not being sure if guests were going to show up, we had no phones at the time, there was no internet in town.
Spenser: Cross your fingers, right?
Tim: Yeah, the roads were awful back in those days, I would go to a coastal town, either Quepos or Jaco every three weeks to check my emails. We had no way to stay connected to the people that we were hoping would financially support us. The rainy seasons were terrible, the roads would close down,
the electricity would go out, water would go out frequently, and it really was less developed here. We were the first and only business back in 2001. For those that come here now, they experience what I would consider quite a vibrant, robust, small, rural community, with many both formal and informal businesses, all throughout this community, it really has been a staggering, wonderful story. I don't want to suggest that we're responsible for that in any way, we are one cog in this machine that has allowed this small rural community to elevate itself to the point where young people now, if they so desire, can stay here, if they are innovative enough, and crafty enough and smart enough and work hard enough, they can create a place like the Iguana Chocolate, a neighboring farm here that produces local, organic chocolate, and make a go at it. The fact that those types of opportunities now exist, mean that incredibly intelligent people like Jorge Salazar, who started the farm, one of the most intelligent people I know, it gave him an option to stay home, and to stem that brain drain which was so common in small, rural communities all over the world really, is critical to this success story, and in a way, to the success story of this community, to retain that type of quality individual, that type of intelligence, and with a little bit of luck, training, and exposure, having that person become a real leader that anchors a community like us, and gives it hope moving forward.
Yeah, getting groups, here, getting people here, back in that time we had a volunteer program that's been eliminated since, or I should say replaced by a year-long apprenticeship. Back in those days, I remember when the bus would arrive, a single bus, each day that arrives here, and looking out our front gate, and hoping that it would be somebody on there,
some newer sneakers or boots coming off. Occasionally there would be, more often than not there wouldn't be, and little by little, people trickled in, and we really tried to focus on quality food, a quality experience, quality accommodations, although back in the beginning, we had no real quality accommodations, we were working with what we had.
Spenser: For lack of a better word, how did you sell it at the beginning? I mean, now you have so much great stuff to offer, at the beginning, it's like, "Who are these guys? What do they really have? And the road looks terrible..." How did you get people excited without a lot to offer?
Tim: In part, the same way we do nowadays. That is because a lot of people, increasing numbers, are interested in this type of lifestyle, are interested in disconnecting from the broken systems that I grew up with, and started to recognize [that], and the first two projects that we did here were to build a cob-bread oven. My wife loves to bake bread, we don't bake bread here anymore, for reasons that maybe we'll go into later. She wanted a cob-bread oven, she had experience building with cob, had built two ovens in the States, and then the composting toilet. And so, those two projects alone, kind of gave us something to show people.
Even back at that time, when there was so little here, we did have a lot to offer, not only with those first, miniscule projects, that spoke to this grander idea of sustainability, resilience, regeneration, there's all sorts of terms thrown around these days of course. But, we also had the allure of living rurally, that adventure to get out here was very attractive to a lot of people. The "chicken bus" attractiveness, when traveling through Central America on a bus, and going out on a bumpy bus ride for two hours, and the bus breaking down and helping push it out of the mud, getting here dirty, getting off the bus and seeing the only in tact, primary forest left in Puriscal county, and incredibly friendly people, and bird life galore, mammals and animals and the tropical wildlife and species, flora and fauna, that really attract people to this country, to all over this country. It was enough for us then, to light the fire in certain individuals who then, left our gates at some point and started that very long process of spreading the word. Word-of-mouth, I would daresay, is still our most important form of marketing. Seemed like almost everybody that comes here has heard about us from somebody else that had already been here, and we just tried to, the best we could, provide an authentic, amazing experience, even back when we didn't have very comfortable mattresses, and we were shitting in a bucket
We used Joe Jenkins’s 5-gallon buckets as composting toilets for the first 9 years here at the main house, we now have three beautiful--
Spenser: You won the loo of the year from a permaculture magazine!
Spenser: It's a fine loo.
Tim: It is indeed. So we moved from that 5-gallon bucket to 8, much larger composting toilets and then, the 3 flush toilets here at the main house that feed a bio-digester that produces methane for cooking in our kitchens. So, we certainly came a long way, back then, we had an abundant amount of energy, we were tireless back then, so even though we were living almost day-to-day, we did have the energy to push through the tough times. Some people say that 90% of these businesses fail, I think we were both lucky and persistent, it seems some days that we shouldn't be here, it seems a miracle that we are here, I should say.
We made a lot of sacrifices, we continue to make a lot of sacrifices, but now, 15 years later, we're in that sweet zone of having our systems start to work for us, a lot more than we're working for them. We're getting into that sweet stage of development in permaculture that you read about, that, really does see the fruit falling off of trees, and the systems really making life for us, less stressful, and more possible to live in a balanced way, I would say.
Spenser: Now, you employ several people in the local community, and I would imagine that you've built up quite a sense of trust and mutual respect and all of that, but was there skepticism from the local community at the beginning? Was there fear? What was it like at first, and then how did that evolve over time?
Tim: In the early days, when we first arrived, I think in general--this would of course be a good question to ask the people that were here when we arrived, this is my perspective of course. But, in general, it seemed like we were welcome by the majority of the community, I think that was because we were seen as a potential source of employment, a potential source of economic injection. To some people, we were probably a little novel.
Tim: [We were] the first Americans to come to live here and call Mastatal their home for the first time in a long time. We certainly were not universally accepted, there was a segment of the population that, like in so many rural areas and probably just about anywhere, when they see outsiders come in, there's a certain defensive reaction that's natural in human beings, people asking the questions of why, what did they come here to do, how will they impact the space.
Spenser: Right, so sorry to interrupt you, but one thing that's true of Joshua [Hughes] at [VerdEnergia] is the locals sometime react to somebody that's having success in the U.S. and doing very well, "Why would you come down to Costa Rica and live in a town that doesn't have any businesses and has bad roads?" It's almost like they think you're insane or something. So, was that part of it?
Tim: Yeah, I think those questions were asked, I don't remember that being the overriding feeling, back then. It's hard now, after being here after 15 years to think back and recall certain conversations, but I don't recall having that conversation, too much. Although, certainly we were looking for something here that we didn't get there. That has been a part of the story of course, interacting with people that, in many cases, have dreamt about getting a work visa to the United States, to make money, to then come back and start a business in Mastatal or whatever the case might be.
So that process has continued, some local men have indeed, gone to the United States with work visas, through all of the interactions that locals have had over the last 15 years, relationships that have been forged, have been fortunate enough to be afforded those opportunities. But, I also believe that through our arrival here, at least in part, the local population I think was better able to say this so that I'm not sounding perhaps egotistical, but they, I think, had their eyes opened up to this idea that they lived in "paradise", that they actually lived in a pretty amazing part of the world, wherever you’re born and wherever you're raised, and that's what you know until you leave and get another perspective and then you come back with fresh eyes. I think that process started to happen for some of the people here, they started to see the forest differently as they saw increasing numbers of people coming here, with their draws dropping and their eyes wide opening and their positive comments about the amazingness of the community and the ecosystem, and I think it's been really positive for the self-esteem of this community, it's a very confident community now, I would say. Wasn't when we got here, it was a community that was rife with this brain drain that I was referring to before. You turn 16, you're out of here, you go find a job in the city.
Spenser: Cause that's where the money is.
Tim: That's where the money is. There were no economic opportunities. Farming is in its most late form, it’s dying, and you can't make a living any longer growing corn beans and rice in the same way. There was just nothing for them to do. That has totally turned around, and again, not only because the Ranch exists, we had the mostly fortunate situation of the conservation area that borders our property, getting an elevation in status to National Park in 2002 and the developments that accompany that, I think have been positive in so many ways for this community, that have allowed people to really see a future in what was a dying community when we came here. All of the communities in this kind of tri-town area have been depopulated very fast over the last many decades, and it seems like at least for now that the population has been stemmed, people are coming back, people are starting business, all of the businesses that I alluded to earlier, have been started by local families, it's been a really remarkable development to witness. It's been fascinating to be a part of.
Spenser: You mentioned earlier, you used to have a volunteer program, and now you've switched to apprenticeships. I get the sense that as a center, you're really focused on long-term relationships with people, I mean I have a sense of why that might be, but I think there's a sense in permaculture design courses that people may have the expectation that, "Oh, this is where I learn to become a professional permaculture designer, over the next 3 weeks." Not all of them, but I think there is a bit of a sense of that. Of course, it takes much longer than that to really learn and test things out and implement them.
First, is that part of your philosophy and if so, do you think that's part of why the place has been successful is it has, versus the more short-term thinking, more like adventure tourism sort of, of course that's part of it anyway, but having the focus more on coming here to really learn and invest in the community, rather than, "I'll come and take a 3 week course and party a bunch and then head out and maybe forget I did the whole thing," or just not really feel like you have a long-term investment, whatever it is, agroforestry, any element of it.
Tim: Yeah, we really have invested heavily in this idea of building continuity and stability into our programs, into our business, into the community, and we have found that it's becoming increasingly important for us to go really as deep as we can into these areas that would become, dare I say it, passionate about.
From a personal sustainability standpoint, this idea of having volunteers come in for short periods of time, any day of the week, training them, and having them leave, that was a necessity for us in the beginning because nobody knew who we were, and we had to get people through our doors in the beginning, to generate some type of revenue, to be able to pay the bills. The more well-known that we became, the more picky we were able to become with regards to how we develop programs and a volunteer coming in for a week, taking a lot of our time and energy contributing a lot or a little, depending on the individual, but having them in and out of your community, both the one here at the Ranch and the bigger community of Mastatal, we've found to be somewhat disruptive to our lives, but also to the lives of the people that called this home outside of the ranches gates. To have that kind of “shotgun tourism”, I think it's a part of what tourism is everywhere. You have a people coming into your space and then out quickly and hopefully they leave a little bit of money, and hopefully improve the quality of the economy, but, I think we all also know the potential destructive side of that and how it can impact a community in so many ways, negatively.
Everywhere we looked, it became obvious that the longer we could get people to stay here, the better our lives were going to be, the more they would contribute, the more they would learn, the better their skills would be upon leaving to affect change, wherever they went, the less destructive the community here would feel, the better the friends that our visitors would make with people, the better quality relationships that would be made, it just made sense on every single level, and we've really taken that now, as much as we've been able to, to the next level, not only with our apprenticeship but all of our educational programs, are being looked at in a different light. We're looking at going longer and going deeper whenever we can. We kind of have two types of education that we engage in here. One we would call inspirational education and the other kind of true deep learning education. Both are important, we just had a group of university students that left his morning, they were here for four days.
Tim: They were greatly inspired. They learned a lot, the learning wasn't deep, it was superficial, but they left blown away, they left inspired to come back, they left inspired to change the focus of their studies. They left with these ideas that they may or may not implement, but certainly in some way had an impact and for some of them will have an impact as they make decisions moving forward, but also, we recognize this more and more, this dearth of, going back to your example of the PDC, this dearth of actual practical application, the PDC, like you suggested, some people do feel that they're going to come in with two weeks and leave with the "stamp" and be able to go anywhere and design everything, they would be professional designers, and they would be able to make the money that they needed doing great work. The reality is, permaculture is this enormous world that encompasses everything from natural building, to growing food, to generating [your] own electricity, and so much in between, really it's a lifetime of learning. It's not a two-week experience, it's just a window into what for me has been a lifestyle that has shown that the learning never ends. The older I get, the more I realize how little I know about so much, and in my 30's, I figured I kind of had it worked out in my head, I kind of knew where I wanted to go and how to get there, but as I become totally immersed in this lifestyle the more I realize that there's so much more to learn and so much more to know and the way to that knowing is to practice these skills and to go deep every single day, to build a lot of pieces of furniture, to grow a lot of food and to make a lot of soap and it's a cornerstone of our year-long apprenticeship, this idea of practice and not this idea of ticking off a box, like oh, "Oh, I made kimchi, so now I know I'm going to tick the box off and I'm never going to make kimchi again," and to become great at making kim chi, you need to experiment and practice and make it a part of your life, just like building a table, you'll get better, you'll become one with the tools, you'll just become a better practitioner.
We want to be a place that offers that type of deep experience for people to be able to come and go deep with, and then as I said, take those skills, both the hard skills, like sharpening a chisel, and the soft skills, which don't get talked about enough, such as being able to interact with people in a healthy manner, and go off into the world and engage and do good work, cause I don't think there's any argument that we need a lot of good people doing a lot of good work all over the world, so that we can start figuring out some solutions to some of the bigger issues that affect us as a species.
Spenser: What advice would you give to somebody that's considering starting a similar community or a similar education center? What are those pitfalls that you've managed to either climb out of or avoid entirely, what are one or two things that are the big things to avoid or to focus on?
Tim: We talk more and more about invisible structures here, everyday. The invisible structures, the behind the scenes structures, that none of our guests see but are critical to the long-term success of an organization such as ours. One recommendation that I would have is to get these invisible structures in place as soon as you can. I think we were extremely fortunate, in the early years, survive without having any of those invisible structures in place.
Spenser: What's an invisible structure?
Tim: So an invisible structure might be how you make decisions, so how are we making decisions, are there protocols or policies in place that allow you to make decisions effectively and well? So that would be one example. How you govern yourselves, how you organize yourselves to be able to govern your community. For us, a big piece has been the financial analysis piece. How to figure out, maybe where you're spending too much money, or where you could be saving money. All of these structures, again, that don't make it into the main house anywhere there, perhaps on pieces of cardboard like the one behind me, or in notebooks, in our office.
Thanks to a couple of our core team members in particular, Laura Killingbeck, she has recognized more and more the lack of this structure for us at the ranch, and the importance of really pushing that forward as quickly as we can, as our core team evolves, as our impact evolves, as our reputation grows, having these structures in place, are critical to a sustainable future. Because just like you can get into trouble by not having enough people come through your doors, and it's not enough revenue, I think equally you can get into trouble by not having your ducks in a row when you start growing faster, perhaps, than you're able to handle.
So, being able to make decisions effectively, and have that structure in place, really is incredibly important. How you decide to do that, is up to your core team, it's up to your staff, it's up to the individuals that participate, but having those long, open, hard discussions on how to compensate yourself, how to make decisions, how to govern, whether to allow guests to come with dogs, is just one example of something that seems so simple or perhaps you would never think about until you get this amazing application, from a woman who has all the skills you need as an apprentice, and then the last line says, "oh, and I have a 60-pound labrador, would you mind if I brought it along?" Oh, you know we don't have a policy in place for that. How would that impact this community? I'm not suggesting you have to have a policy for every possible scenario, but to really have an organization or a structure in place to be able to deal with those types of issues, and certainly to deal with any discord that will inevitably come up in a community such as this one. You have to be able to deal with issues, you have to be able to deal with people leaving, you have to be able to deal with people showing up, you have to be able to deal with people separating and coming together and I wish we had done more of that, earlier on.
I had never heard of the term, "invisible structures", prior to coming down here so I didn't know that was as important as I do now, and I think if I were to give someone the best chance of success, they would have some semblance of those structures in place.
Spenser: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self and your 30-year-old self?
Tim: Wow, ok. That's a difficult question. What advice would I give my 20-year-old self, holy cow.
Spenser: One piece of advice, just to simplify it.
Tim: One piece of advice. God, I dare say what I just said, but, get the people part and the organizational part figured out. Spend the necessary time, energy, and money in developing an infrastructure that will work for you over the long-term. I'll say it again, I think we're fortunate in many ways to still be here, based on the fact that we didn't have that well in place. We got by because we worked our asses off and we got lucky here and there and because we live in a beautiful spot, but I can't stress enough how we should've had more of that in place, prior to heading out. To my 30-year-old self, take care of yourself, physically. I think, like so many of these places, burnout is a reality. I toyed with burnout about halfway in with this, I was giving it my all, not compensating myself in any real way, working extremely long hours, playing hard, just really going for it all and I think that really put me at great risk physically, emotionally, psychologically, in my relationships with my friends and family. It's really important self-care, that self-care piece that you can forget about so easily and put last in line, because of everything that's going on in your world, and that need, that perceived need to always be pushing forward, to be able to make it work, but I do now realize that the better rested you are, the more balanced you are, the healthier you are, the better your performance, the more productive you'll be, it's not about going at it at the time, it's about treating yourself well and knowing when to be able to take care of yourself.
Spenser: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Tim: Funny, after 15 years, I am at this really sweet spot in my life where it actually feels like it's getting better, I feel like I'm more at home all the time, which might seem a little bit strange to hear that, perhaps that would be something you would assume, but I really have felt that I've been able to kind of find this balance. I said earlier, we're kind of hitting that sweet spot of our stage of development and I get to spend pretty much everyday with incredible, incredible people. I try not to take that for granted, we have an amazing apprenticeship crew, we have amazing students and teachers coming through here, amazing builders, amazing permaculturalists, and to have that in my life all the time is a real blessing, and to have that be my life, my child's life, my wife's life, really is something that I am ever grateful for, just to be around amazing people all the time is a constant source of inspiration, constant source of education, and fills me up.
Spenser: Cool, thanks so much for doing this, and taking the time to share a little bit with us.
Tim: My pleasure, thanks for allowing us to get our story out a little bit.
Spenser: Sure, there's a little intro to Rancho Mastatal, you can find out a lot more at RanchoMastatal.com, which I'll link out to in the show notes. I really encourage everyone to take a look at it, there's a lot of great information on there, it's a great looking website. If you have any questions or comments on the podcast, we would love to hear from you, you can comment below or email Tim or I. His email is on his website. Alright, thanks guys.